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News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave
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Sunday 5 May 2024

King or Covenant: Voices from the Civil War

This book, by the period specialist David Stevenson, is a different approach to the history of the civil wars. He has taken thirteen individuals who lived through the period, looking at their writings and stories to get a different perspective. Some played significant roles, others less so, but none were the 'great men' of the period. I found this book buried in a second-hand bookshop, but copies appear to be available from other sellers.

The thirteen people range from soldiers, to gentry, lawyers, a priest and a clerk. They are somewhat self-selecting based on adequate sources but can be characterised as being from the middle ranks of society.

I naturally spent more time reading about the soldiers. Sir Andrew Melville was the first. Like many Scots, he fought in the Thirty Years' War before being tempted back to Scotland when the fighting broke out. His memoirs might suggest he was a lucky officer to have survived many near misses. However, as one of his benefactors, The Electress Sophia of Hanover, put it, he was often a 'soldier of ill-fortune', given his many wounds. Later in the wars, he joined the forces assembled by the Duke of Lorraine for an intervention. However, this was abandoned when Charles I was executed. He fought for Charles II at Worcester but was wounded and captured. However, he managed to make his way back to the continent. He ended up as a major general and, despite his many wounds, died in some comfort, at least materially.

Major Thomas Weir was a strange soldier, possibly mad, who was executed not for his soldiering but for criminal offences of incest. He was also charged with sorcery, although the court dismissed them as fanciful. Nonetheless, his reputation survived into 19th-century prose. He was an extreme covenanter, and I came across him first as Montrose's unpleasant jailer before the great man was executed himself.  

The most famous soldier in the book is Alasdair MacColla. He played an important part in several of Montrose's victories but was also missing pursuing his own feud with the Campbells when he was needed the most. He almost certainly invented the Highland Charge, which impacted the battlefield for over a century. Stevenson has written a separate book about MacColla, which points to the broader story rather than simply a lieutenant of Montrose.

The fourth soldier in this book was Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty, who played a minor military role. He certainly looks like the classic cavalier with his extravagant dress, reflecting his belief in his genius. He was a prolific writer, even though his works were often unintelligible. He fought in the failed Pluscardine rebellion and at the Battle of Worcester, where the English soldiers found a better use for his writings, which, for some reason, he took on campaign in five chests.

I enjoyed this historical approach, which differs from the traditional narrative style. There are some interesting characters here that give us a better understanding of how the civil wars impacted the middle classes.


  1. Oh, that sounds an interesting approach. That book will have to go on my list. Thanks for flagging it up.
    The mind boggles at what use the English soldiers made of Urquhart's papers! Incidentally, was he an ancestor of the general of Arnhem fame?

    1. A good question I don't know the answer to. If he was a suspect the connection was remote. Roy Urquhart's father was a doctor and not even minor nobility.

  2. They were different times I suppose. In more modern times I can’t imagine I would have written my true thoughts and perspective until the outcome was stable - otherwise there’s the risk that you’d be picked up, questioned, jailed or worse, if what you’d written was deemed subversive or offended the sensibilities of those currently in power.

    1. One or two of the non-military chapter characters certainly hedged their bets at different stages of the conflict.